Data is political. Ask a Glaswegian.

Musings
COP26 travelcard

The COP26 circus is in town. As a proud Glaswegian, I’m watching on (literally, out the window, at times) as the entire world has gathered here to settle the future of humanity. No biggie.

Any local you speak to will have a very different take on the event than the visitors and participants who are passing through. But I’m going to single out one thing about the conference which has raised a lot of Glaswegians’ blood pressure – not that we ever need any help in that department.

For the duration of the conference, accredited participants have been given a groundbreaking technical invention:

an integrated city-wide public transport card.

(ooh!)

OMG a citywide integrated public transport card! A bit like the ones I have collected, over the years, from pretty much every city I have travelled in.

Glasgow, you see, does not have an integrated travel card. We’ve been waiting for one for decades. We’ve been promised one for decades. We’ve been hinted at that they’re coming for decades. Like Godot, it does not come.

There are as many excuses for why we don’t have this really obvious thing as there are users of the transport system.

We’re tired of them.

We’re also tired of being told that integrated transport means that you can have an app or a season ticket for one bus company, another app and season ticket for another bus company, another app and season ticket for the trains, another app and season ticket for the subway, and so on, despite the fact that none of these systems talk to or integrate with each other.

But it’s worth looking at what we do have, and reflecting on the political reasons why these systems are allowed to pass for a public transport policy well into the 21st century.

First off, there is, technically, an integrated transport ticket. It’s called a “ZoneCard“. It is not pay-as-you-go; it is a hefty monthly payment, based on the zones you are travelling through, regardless of your use. That makes it good for seasonal commuters and no one else.

There is also no technical aspect to it. It is a paper card in a large plastic wallet which you have to show when boarding transport, like Mulder and Scully flashing their badges. I say Mulder and Scully because the card has not changed since the 90s, at the earliest. The only thing that has changed is the constantly increasing price.

That means that the ZoneCard collects and generates no anonymised user data, whatsoever, about public transport usage, times, or priority routes. Incredibly, ZoneCard holders are invited to voluntarily, and manually, complete a travel diary about their journeys, to inform the system about how, when, and where they’re travelling.

In other words, Glasgow’s integrated travelcard is an analogue hangover from an analogue time, which does not want to know how the system is used. While every city and municipality on the rest of the planet forges through with data-driven decisions about transport, Glasgow sees no data, hears no data, and seeks no data.

There are too many status quos which real-time transport data might upset.

What do I mean by that? Let me light the blue touch paper now.

Every bus in Glasgow, you see, regardless of the independent operator, does have a fully functional and intergrated system-wide travelcard reader on it.

For the over-60s.

Who do not pay.

Scotland’s concession card system, you see, gives free nationwide bus travel – no questions asked, no restrictions – to anyone over the age of 60. Free over-60s travel, a deeply political commitment from the Scottish Government, is viewed as something between a sacrament and a human right. If the card system went down for fifteen minutes, there would be howls of outrage from every village to Holyrood.

That system does generate user data on public transport usage, times, and priority routes. But it does so for people who, by definition, are not in employment; in other words, they are not using the system to get to work. (And if they’re over 60 and still in work, they’re getting a free commute on the taxpayer, which is wrong.) The purpose of that user data collection is not to make informed decisions about how, when, and where public transport should operate. It’s for fraud prevention.

So we do have a data set about public transport use, generated by an integrated public transport card; and that data set is completely useless because it does not reflect the economic and educational needs of the working population who are paying for their own commutes as well as paying for the unlimited free travel for the over-60s. Many of whom, let’s face it, can bloody well afford it.

And there we have it.

We desperately need an integrated public transport card in Glasgow, no doubt. We also need a public transport system that is built around the employment and education needs of the people building our future.

Glasgow is never going to get where we need to go, in any sense, as long we maintain our parochial view of public transport as being a political perk for nonpaying retirees, at the deliberate financial and societal expense of paying workers, students, and commuters, and the planet too.

So we need to reflect on that as we try to find a solution.

Because Glasgow’s public transport problem isn’t one of code, or hardware, or data, or ticketing systems. It’s a political problem about why those systems are consistently rejected and excused away.

It’s not an issue of making the best use of data. It’s an uncomfortable political aversion to collecting that data in the first place.

And it’s not an issue about what we can or cannot achieve as a city. It’s a tug-o-war between those who want to activate public transport to go somewhere, and those who want to weaponise public transport to keep people in their places.

Every other city in the world has sorted this, and found a way forward that benefits everyone – students, workers, and the elderly. And they did so decades ago. So let’s not try to fix this problem with a hackathon or an investment in hardware, because we can’t.

The only way we’re going to fix our political aversion to data-driven decisions is – in the metaphorical and emotional sense – by shoving yer granny aff the bus.

Gently.

The Author

I advocate for an open web built around international standards of human rights, privacy, accessibility, and freedom of expression. I'm currently searching for my next tech policy role, and you should probably sort that.